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    The key was to make the duke complacent.

    The opportunity might not come soon, something both I and Zachary, listening to me now, probably knew. But still, if he kept his head down and endured, an opportunity would surely come one day. Just like I found a chance to secretly visit Zachary.

    “I’ll get you out when the opportunity comes.”

    When that time arrives, you can leave.

    I wanted to ensure he left this place not too broken, hoping he wouldn’t turn into the merciless, tearless killer he becomes in the original story.

    His eyes were too clear and sincere for such a fate.

    “Now I really have to go.”

    The sound of the fourth door closing reached us.

    The duke was very close now.

    I released his shoulder, looked around to make sure I hadn’t left any traces, and headed for the secret passage. It led to the bathhouse, and I couldn’t climb into the ceiling while Zachary was watching me warily, so I had no other choice.

    As I hurriedly knocked on the door of the serpent passage to escape, a small but clear voice stopped me.

    “What’s, your, name…?” Zachary asked.

    His voice was small but clear.

    It might have been the loudest thing he said today, making it all the more distinct. Caught off guard, I turned back to look at him, but Zachary wasn’t looking at me.

    ‘He’s shaking.’

    Did he really not know? The sound of the door opening.

    After five days, that sound, signaling what was to come next, must have been deeply ingrained in him.

    The weak would have cracked at just the sound of it, others might have fainted. Such was the terror it evoked, amplified by learned fear.

    “Please, tell me your name.”

    His voice trembled as he asked, his whole body shaking yet resolute. That pitiful yet strong demeanor made me feel a sudden surge of emotion, but there was no time for sentimentality.

    “Oscar.”

    Oscar Serpentine.

    Even in this moment, I felt disgusted by my own selfishness. Hoping he would harbor less resentment towards me, I only gave my first name, omitting the Serpentine surname, to Zachary who clearly knew I was part of this household.

    “Let’s properly introduce ourselves when we meet again. Oh, and…”

    “…”

    “I’m a man.”

    There was no time to hear his response or to check on him again.

    As the sound of the fifth door opening coincided with my sixth knock, I quickly pushed myself into the passage.

    ***

    Ah, the world seems unnaturally bright.

    Waking up felt as arduous as the day after heavy drinking, a struggle to even open my eyes and lift my body.

    This had been my state for several days.

    In the initial days, I was almost out of my mind, dazed by medication, unable to figure out what to do.

    My mind kept spinning. I hadn’t eaten anything, but I kept retching until I collapsed, with no clear memory of what was happening.

    Even counting the days became meaningless at some point.

    I had given up on tracking the days after the tenth.

    “Why hasn’t his health improved over these days? Haven’t you found the cause yet?”

    “Madame Serpentine, we are doing our best, but…”

    Today, at least, my mind was clearer. I could hear voices.

    Every time I woke up, I was too busy vomiting in a daze, repeatedly eating and throwing up the gruel that was force-fed to me. There was no chance to hear voices until now.

    Amidst my blurred consciousness, I heard voices – one furious, the other pleading. It seemed like a doctor had been called again.

    Ah, mother seems very angry. I heard her voice resonating angrily through the room. Trying to calm her down, I futilely attempted to open my eyes and sit up.

    Cough, cough!”

    “Oh, my child! You’re awake!”

    As soon as I opened my eyes, a violent cough erupted.

    Mother, pale as a ghost, rushed to me, stroking my cheek and exclaiming about my fever. Through my blurry vision, I saw the duke standing beside her. His presence indicated the seriousness of my condition.

    “Do you know how scared I was when I heard you had fainted in the corridor? What were you thinking, taking a bath in your condition, pushing aside the servants and all!”

    That’s right. After leaving Zachary, I had gone straight to the bathhouse. I hastily washed my blood-soaked clothes in the bath water, hid the plans in the passage, and covered myself in heavy fragrances. It seemed to work; neither mother nor the duke looking at me now appeared suspicious of my meeting with Zachary, just concerned.

    ‘The problem was my body.’

    Everything was perfect until I left the bathhouse. The corridor was empty of servants, and I should have just returned to my room as if nothing had happened.

    But inexplicably, as I was walking back to my room, my eyelids became unbearably heavy, and soon I collapsed, falling unconscious.

    It was a baffling fainting spell, almost as if I had some underlying illness, but I just accepted it. After all, I had ventured to meet Zachary with my lack of physical fitness; suffering some consequences seemed only fair.

    “Why did you go there in the first place?”

    “I’m sorry. I suddenly started sweating a lot. I didn’t want to be a bother, so I tried to wash up secretly, but then…”

    “What? Eriz Serpentine!”

    Startled, mother loudly called out the duke’s name, including his surname, and then abruptly turned her head.

    “I’ve said it over and over. Our child needs a proper servant!”

    As she looked at him with an angry expression, the duke momentarily flinched. Then, appearing troubled, he shifted his gaze and looked down.

    “But the Avengers are already engaged in other tasks and can’t be assigned to Oscar. Moreover, unless they are servants I have personally trained, the secrets of our family are always at risk…”

    “If this continues, my child will die. This won’t do. Maybe a few years of recuperation are needed, indeed!”

    “Adel!”

    Had the duke not intervened, I might have impulsively called out to my mother in agreement.

    Recuperation? That sounded wonderful. I loved the idea of taking a break, but the timing was terribly wrong. If I followed my mother for recuperation now, Zachary would be left alone here, and who knows what could happen to him in that time.

    The duke, after a moment of contemplation, finally spoke.

    “As you know, the spells used by our family are dangerous if leaked outside. Therefore, the servants we hire must be trained, and they can never touch our bodies…”

    “That darn training, always training, training! Can’t you find someone from a decent lineage who hasn’t committed any crimes? I want a servant who can touch my son without issue! When will you listen to me?”

    Mother had been consistently demanding this from the duke. In her case, since she could not dress or adorn herself, she had always had a servant who had been with her since her youth. But it was different for me.

    The origins of the servants here were terrible.

    Most were criminals, each one dangerous, trained not to touch their masters. Therefore, there was no one to take care of me.

    “But…”

    “There are no buts!”

    It seemed like mother had finally made up her mind, especially after this incident. She appeared to believe that my prolonged fever was due to lying alone in the corridor for a long time without a personal servant to attend to me.

    Sigh.”

    The duke, seemingly in agreement but unable to argue further with her, sighed deeply and looked lost in thought. It made sense, considering that since my childhood, I had often collapsed in deserted places, and my health had occasionally deteriorated suddenly in the middle of the night.

    The servants, programmed like machines to perform only specific tasks, were unable to detect such subtle changes in my condition. As a result, I had collapsed several times without anyone noticing.

    “I expect you to choose wisely. Someone impeccable!”

    Mother firmly made her request, and the duke, avoiding a direct answer, looked somewhat embarrassed. He then awkwardly smiled at me.

    “Are you feeling alright? I’m sorry about this.”

    “I’m fine.”

    This time, the issue wasn’t because I lacked a personal servant. The journey to meet Zachary had been arduous and tense, leading to my physical breakdown. While I felt sorry that the duke was receiving my mother’s ire because of me, part of me wasn’t sorry.

    After all, whose fault was this situation?

    Had the duke vehemently refused the royal command to take in the young prince, the royal family would have probably sought other means. Perhaps they would have used the prince as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Holy Empire for his return. Then, the prince wouldn’t have suffered like this, nor would he have a reason to turn dark later.

    ‘Is he holding up well now?’

    Truthfully, I didn’t have high hopes that he would follow my last piece of advice. It would be great if he did, but the protagonist wasn’t known for such compliance. Zachary was like a stubborn, upright bamboo – I doubted he would easily conform and act submissively as I suggested.

    ‘I should be feeling less pain by now.’

    Ideally, I would have liked to bring more medicine to Zachary and check on his condition, but as you can see, I’m unable to leave my bed. The image of his disheveled state kept floating in my mind as I stared blankly into space. The duke, noticing my preoccupation, cautiously asked me.

    “Do you have any specific requirements? It’s not the ideal time to bring in new people, but I’ll try to accommodate your wishes as much as possible.”

    “Specific requirements?”

    “For the servant who will attend to you.”

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